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Archive for the ‘FAQ’ Category

Wheels at Chaco Museum from Ore Cart Used to Haul Fill from Pueblo Bonito

I’m back at Chaco and giving tours again, so I’m once again being exposed to visitors’ common questions and preconceptions in a way I haven’t been in a long time.  One thing that seems to surprise a lot of visitors is the fact that the Chacoans apparently had no knowledge of the wheel, or if they did have such knowledge they didn’t apply it to transport any of the many things they brought into the canyon from distant sources.  (People are also sometimes surprised to learn that they didn’t have draft animals either, which I find a bit surprising myself since I tend to think of that as common knowledge.)

I think it’s actually not difficult to see why the Chacoans wouldn’t have seen any use for the wheel even if they somehow knew about it, and the lack of draft animals is the key to understanding why.  (This is admittedly a bit speculative on my part, but I think it works.)  Without big, strong animals to pull wheeled vehicles, any efficiency gains from them in terms of human labor would be decidedly non-obvious.  The only type of wheeled vehicle that would really be effective using only human labor would be the wheelbarrow, and while this may provide some efficiency gains over carrying goods by hand I don’t think they would have been clear enough to compensate for the increased effort involved in building the thing, especially given the often rough and broken terrain of the Southwest.  Even the Chacoan roads, which may or may not have actually been intended for use in transporting goods but certainly could have been so used once they were built, were actually not as level and easy as people often assume, although they were more level than the surrounding terrain.  Most of the effort put into the roads went into clearing the surface and defining the curbs, but grading of the cleared ground surface was typically not done and the road beds follow the underlying terrain for the most part.  This was fine for foot traffic, and definitely an improvement over the uncleared surrounding terrain, but it wouldn’t have been particularly suitable for wheeled vehicles.  Furthermore, the vaunted straightness of the roads would actually have made them even less suitable for wheeled vehicles or draft animals, given the common practice of handling steep cliffs in the path of the road with stairways.  Good luck getting a cart up or down one of those!

Jackson Stairway

The lack of draft animals and the unevenness of the terrain have also been posited as reasons for the lack of wheeled vehicles throughout the Americas.  While the terrain would not have been an impediment everywhere, such as in the Yucatan where the terrain is generally flat and the roads built by the Maya were much more elaborate and level than anything seen around Chaco, in highland areas like Central Mexico and lowland areas covered by dense vegetation such as those along the Gulf Coast of Mexico the maneuverability of a person on foot would likely have been far more important to efficient transportation than any increase in efficiency resulting from wheeled vehicles in the absence of animals to pull them.  Gordon Ekholm of the American Museum of Natural History, whom we last saw discovering atlatl finger loops, discussed many of these issues in an interesting article from 1946 about the wheeled toys found in various parts of Mexico, which demonstrate that at least the Mesoamericans were in fact aware of the wheel even though they didn’t use it for any practical purpose.  These clay toys, in the form of animals with wheels in place of feet, had been found in widely scattered parts of Central and Northeast Mexico, from Oaxaca to Veracruz, and while the axles connecting the wheels to the feet were apparently made of a perishable material like wood and did not survive, the fact that one example was found in situ with the wheels in the proper position led Ekholm to conclude that they definitely were originally wheeled.  Robert Lister (a very prominent figure in the history of Chacoan archaeology who also did some work in Mesoamerica) followed up on Ekholm’s article shortly afterward, noting the apparent presence of similar wheeled toys in West Mexico and referring to the discovery of copper examples in Panama as well.

Effigy Vessels at Chaco Museum

Ekholm’s article provides a solid discussion of the implication of these toys for Mesoamerican technology and general anthropological understanding of technological development.  He discusses the lack of draft animals and the difficult terrain, but ultimately concludes that the main factor preventing more widespread use of the wheel was likely a cultural and technological conservatism that privileged the old way of doing things, which in this case meant carrying goods on people’s backs, over an untried new invention like the wheel.  He attributes the origin of the idea of wheeled toys to pure invention, probably stemming from experimentation with the round spindle whorls that are very common Mesoamerican artifacts.  It’s not clear just how far this idea spread, and to my knowledge there is no evidence that anyone in the Southwest was aware of it, although some of the ceramic animal effigies found at Chaco and elsewhere do bear some resemblance to the Mesoamerican toys.  Ekholm makes a convincing case that despite the ingenious nature of these toys, without suitable social and ecological conditions for the wider adoption of the technology it remained more of a curiosity than anything else.

Basically, without draft animals, the idea of making a big vehicle like a cart which could carry a heavy load more efficiently than a person could would be unlikely to have occurred to anyone, because such a cart would still have to be pulled by people.  Or, in other words, if you have a cart but not a horse, you are, well, putting the cart before the horse.  And who would do a thing like that?
ResearchBlogging.org
Ekholm, G. (1946). Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 11 (4) DOI: 10.2307/275722

Lister, R. (1947). Additional Evidence of Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 12 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275708

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Turquoise-Covered Pottery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Probably no single material is more closely associated with Chaco than turquoise.  The vast amounts found in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito alone suggest its importance, but it has been found in considerable quantities at many different sites, both small houses and great houses and both inside and outside of the canyon.  There is considerable evidence that manufacture of turquoise jewelry became a major activity in Chaco and some of the outlier communities during the period when the Chacoan system was beginning to form, and probable ornament manufacturing areas have been found at both great houses and small houses.  It’s not clear what precise role turquoise may have played in the system (though there are some intriguing possibilities suggested by other lines of evidence), but it is apparent that it was an important one.  It’s also important to note that unlike some rare artifacts, such as shell trumpets, turquoise seems to have been associated with the system as a whole rather than with Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Both finished artifacts and manufacturing debris are found in significant quantities at many outliers, especially to the south in the Red Mesa Valley.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

What’s really remarkable about this apparent centrality of turquoise is that there are no turquoise deposits anywhere near Chaco, or indeed within the area covered by the Chaco system as a whole.  All of this turquoise had to be imported from somewhere, and this importation was clearly occurring on a vast scale and over a relatively long period of time.  The closest source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe, which have extensive turquoise deposits that show much evidence of being mined in antiquity (as well as in modern times), including some apparent campsites with material culture suggestive of a connection to the San Juan Basin.  For a long time most researchers assumed that most or all of the turquoise at Chaco came from Cerrillos, and for a while it was fashionable to come up with theories explaining the rise of Chaco as being based on control of the Cerrillos mines and the trade routes connecting them with the vast market for turquoise in Mesoamerica.  These theories have more recently fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, one being the general trend away from emphasizing Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system and another being the inconvenient fact that many of the most productive turquoise deposits in the Southwest are in southern Arizona and New Mexico, considerably closer to Mexico than Chaco, which makes it difficult to explain how the  Chacoans could have sustained a monopoly on the turquoise trade.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

This whole issue would benefit greatly from more precise information on the actual source of Chaco’s turquoise.  The idea that it came from Cerrillos is basically just an assumption based on geographical proximity, and while it’s a reasonable enough assumption there have been many attempts to use chemical properties of the turquoise to determine its precise origin and either confirm or deny the Cerrillos hypothesis.  Most of the early attempts to do this using trace element analysis were unsuccessful, due mainly to the complicated internal structure of turquoise as a material.  One recent  paper, however, reports on a remarkably successful attempt to use a new technique based on isotope ratios to characterize sources and assign artifacts to them.  The technique uses two isotope ratios: hydrogen to deuterium and copper-63 to copper-65.  The combination of the two ratios can be used to define a two-dimensional space within which individual samples can be placed to determine if samples from the same source cluster together.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

It turns out they do.  The researchers used samples from a variety of Southwestern turquoise sources, most of which show clear evidence of having been used in antiquity, including three in the Cerrillos area, one in southern New Mexico, two each in Colorado and Arizona, and four in Nevada.  They analyzed several samples from one of the Arizona mines to test internal variation within a single source.  There turned out to be little variation, suggesting that individual sources generally have homogeneous isotope ratios, and the three Cerrillos sources also clustered close to each other, suggesting that this similarity in ratios operates at a regional as well as local scale.

Sign at Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The researchers also tested several pieces of turquoise found at several small houses in Chaco Canyon and one at the Guadalupe outlier community, which marks the far eastern edge of the Chacoan system and is the closest Chacoan community to Cerrillos.  Guadalupe plays a key role in models of Chaco that posit Chacoan control of the Cerrillos mines, since any transport of turquoise from Cerrillos to Chaco would almost certainly have to have involved Guadalupe as an intermediate stop.  Guadalupe is thus probably the outlying community most relevant to an investigation of Chacoan turquoise sources.

Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The results were interesting.  Several of the artifacts seem to have come from Cerrillos, with a much higher proportion at Guadalupe than at Chaco, but a few other sources were present as well, including one of the Colorado sources at Guadalupe and the southern New Mexico source and two Nevada sources at Chaco.  Four artifacts matched none of the sources tested, implying that they came from some other, as yet unidentified, source.  The Chaco artifacts came from a wide range of chronological contexts, with earlier periods more strongly represented than later ones.  The Guadalupe artifacts unfortunately didn’t come from a securely dated context, so nothing much can be said about their relative or absolute chronology.  In general, the Chaco artifacts seem to have come from a wide range of sources in all time periods, but the sample size is so small that it is hard to come to any more specific conclusions.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This paper is really just a pilot project, intended primarily to demonstrate the methodology used, and the conclusion mentions that continued research using more sources and artifacts is underway.  The main conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that assuming all the Chaco turquoise came from Cerrillos is no longer warranted, and it seems the trade networks in the prehistoric Southwest were much more elaborate and far-flung, at least for valuable, portable materials like turquoise, than such an assumption would suggest.  Chaco may or may not have been primarily about turquoise, but it certainly wasn’t about Cerrillos turquoise.
ResearchBlogging.org
HULL, S., FAYEK, M., MATHIEN, F., SHELLEY, P., & DURAND, K. (2007). A new approach to determining the geological provenance of turquoise artifacts using hydrogen and copper stable isotopes Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.10.001

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Poorly Drained Dirt Road near Bisti, New Mexico

One of the most frequent questions visitors to Chaco ask is why the road leading there hasn’t been paved.  That particular road, largely because it leads to Chaco, has a particularly thorny set of issues surrounding the idea of paving, which I’ve discussed before, but one thing I would often mention in dealing with these questions is the fact that paved roads are fairly rare throughout the Four Corners area.  Most roads are dirt, and there are a lot of them.  So it’s not really surprising that the road to Chaco would be dirt, since that’s sort of the default state for roads in the Navajo country.  This would often be surprising to visitors from other parts of the country, where dirt roads are rare to nonexistent.  To them paved roads are the default, and the lack of paving on a given road is odd and demands an explanation.

Informal Two-Track Road at Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, New Mexico

What all this doesn’t address, however, is why so few roads in the area are paved.  Especially since the Navajo country is so large and sparsely populated that for practical purposes driving is the only way to get places, it does seem odd at first glance that there isn’t more effort put into getting roads paved.  As Cindy Yurth points out in a fantastic article in the Navajo Times, however, it’s not that easy to pave a road, especially on the Navajo Reservation.  Some of the issues she mentions don’t really apply at Chaco, which is off the Reservation, but many of the others do, along with some additional complications, most of which have to do with the bewildering variety of governments and agencies that have a say in decisions around Chaco.  The issues of maintenance and the desire of many local residents for roads to remain unpaved, however, apply equally on and off the Reservation.  Anyway, it’s a great article, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this issue.

"Street Closed" Sign at Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico

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Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

In between a bunch of depressing news about budget cuts, the latest edition of Southwestern Archaeology Today links to a couple of interesting articles with considerable relevance to ChacoOne is about turkeys; I’ll do a post on it later.  The other is a column by Marc Simmons in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Pueblo clothing and how it has changed over time.

Diorama at Chaco Museum

Interestingly, in my experience visitors to Chaco don’t actually ask about clothing very often.  This may be due to the influence of a diorama in the visitor center museum which seems to answer any questions they might have, since it shows people in the course of various daily activities attired in loincloths and little else, which is pretty common for “Indians” in museum dioramas.  This “all loincloths all the time” interpretation is also common in artists’ renditions of “what life was like” on interpretive signs at many parks.  There aren’t many of these signs at Chaco, but they are quite common at some other parks such as Mesa Verde.  This all has a powerful effect on people’s perceptions, I think, because visual impressions are both stronger and more vivid than anything that can be explained in words.  Indeed, a woman once asked me, referring to the diorama, why the Chacoans had worn anything at all.  To this day I’m not sure what preconceptions she was bringing to the diorama, but clearly its implication that “the Indians” didn’t wear much had led her down that cognitive path.  This strong effect of the visual image is unfortunate, however, because quite a bit is known about how the Chacoans probably dressed, and all the evidence available strongly indicates that the diorama is totally wrong.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

But back to Simmons.  He’s one of the most renowned historians of New Mexico, and I’ve mentioned him before for his excellent book on the history of Albuquerque.  His specialty is the Spanish colonial era, so his column on Pueblo clothing draws most of its information from Spanish documents.  Those documents begin with the earliest exploratory expeditions in the sixteenth century, and they are generally thought to be pretty reliable in their descriptions of the people the explorers encountered.   The main thing that impressed those explorers about the Pueblos was how “civilized” they seemed in comparison to the hunter-gatherer groups they had seen further south.  Indeed, the name “Pueblo” itself, deriving originally from these reports, refers to the people’s settlement pattern based on large, permanent towns.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Similarly, the main comments the chroniclers had about Pueblo clothing were about how substantial it was.  Men typically wore kilts, and women wore a type of dress known as a manta, made out of large square pieces of cloth.  The main material used was cotton, which was grown in the low-lying river valleys, especially in the Rio Abajo region at the southern end of the Pueblo domain, and traded to the villages in areas where cotton can’t be grown.  This cotton was woven into cloth, always by men, and often in ceremonial contexts in kivas or other important spaces.  The Spanish also remarked on the use of tanned buckskin or gamuza as an alternative material for clothes, especially nice during the cold winters.  Another item useful for keeping warm was the rabbit-fur coat, made of strips of rabbit hide woven together by women.  Footwear consisted primarily of leather moccasins known as teguas.

"Ceremonial Chamber" Sign at Mesa Verde Showing Men Weaving in Kiva

This information comes from a few hundred years after the fall of Chaco, of course.  A lot had changed in Pueblo culture during that period, so it would definitely be a mistake to simply project the Spanish reports back in time.  Luckily, we don’t have to.  Due to the good preservation at Chacoan sites, and the even better preservation at the cliff dwellings occupied slightly later, many examples of clothing have survived, though generally only in fragmentary condition.  These materials largely substantiate the Spanish accounts: Cloth is typically made out of cotton (probably underrepresented in the archaeological record because it doesn’t preserve very well), and cloaks made of woven rabbit fur and turkey feathers are common.

Sandals at Chaco Museum

The moccasins and leather garments are not generally found, however.  There is no shortage of footwear, but it takes the form of sandals made of yucca fibers.  These are very common and there are some indications that they may have had ritual importance in addition to their everyday use.  Leather moccasins during this period are rare to nonexistent in the Chacoan area, but common among the Fremont to the north in Utah, and they are even considered a diagnostic feature of the Fremont culture.

Bison Statue in Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado

At some point between the fall of Chaco and the Spanish entradas, then, leather clothing and footwear seem to have been adopted by the Pueblos.  One theory to explain this, along with various other changes in Pueblo society during this period, links it to increased contact with Plains groups starting in the fourteenth century.  Another theory sees the adoption of leather clothing as associated with a prolonged period of climatic cooling, perhaps associated with the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  These two theories are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I think they actually complement each other nicely.  One proposed way of tying them together is a model in which cooling weather on the southern Plains leads to bison beginning to venture further south than they had before, which leads bison-hunting Plains people to follow them and come into contact with the Pueblos, whose increasingly efficient irrigation agriculture gives them surpluses of crops that they can exchange for meat, hides, and other bison products.  It’s notable that trade networks during this period seem to be oriented along an east-west axis connecting the Pueblos to the Plains, whereas trade during earlier periods seems to have been more north-south and connected to Mesoamerica.

Looking East toward the Great Plains from Las Vegas, New Mexico

Of course, this theory is by no means universally accepted, and there are other ways to interpret the changes in Pueblo material culture during this time.  Still, coming back to clothing specifically, I think all of this shows that the “Diorama Indian” loincloth-based attire has more to do with the preconceptions of the people who made the dioramas than with what people at Chaco and elsewhere actually wore.

Close-Up of Diorama at Chaco Museum

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New Mexico RailRunner Express, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Yesterday I went with my mom and my sister on the RailRunner to Santa Fe to check out the New Mexico History Museum, behind the Palace of the Governors.  It was the first time any of us had either taken the train or seen the museum, which just opened in 2009, and we were very impressed with both.  The museum is very well-designed, in a contemporary, interactive way, and unlike many museums it doesn’t overwhelm by putting too many things on display at once.  The items that are displayed are accompanied by extensive, bilingual (English and Spanish) interpretive texts which help to place them in context.  The approach is broad rather than deep, but it gives a good, balanced, and very accessible introduction to the rich history of the state.  Since it’s part of the Museum of New Mexico, the collections available for display are extensive, and the curators have selected some fascinating original items to show.  They have also arranged for loans of other important original items from other museums with extensive collections of material related to New Mexico history.

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

One such museum is the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored several important archaeological expeditions to the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus has a large collection of artifacts, almost all of which remain locked away in storage rather than on display.  The American Museum doesn’t even seem to have a single permanent exhibition showing its Southwestern material.  (I haven’t been there yet myself, so I can’t confirm this personally.)  A lot of this material is from the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations at Chaco, which the American Museum sponsored, and visitors at Chaco would often ask about these artifacts and whether they could see them anywhere.  When I would tell them the answer, that the artifacts were in New York and not on display, they would often get pretty upset, but I would just say that that’s what museums do: they collect things.  They display some things, but they collect much more than they display, so most of the stuff ends up in storage, awaiting future temporary exhibits or loans to other museums.

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

With that context in mind, imagine my reaction when I walked into the permanent exhibition of the New Mexico History Museum and the very first artifact on display was a bone scraper from Pueblo Bonito on loan from the AMNH.  This particular scraper is one of the most famous and most spectacular of the artifacts found at Chaco.  It is inlaid with a band of turquoise and jet mosaic that is just exquisitely done.  It was found by the Hyde Expedition in 1897 in Room 38 of Pueblo Bonito, along with the even more famous jet frog, and it features prominently in the article George Pepper wrote on the artifacts from Room 38.  Being able to see the real thing, in person, is just extraordinary, and even more so for me because it was such an unexpected surprise.  Like I said, the AMNH collections from Chaco are almost completely inaccessible to the general public, which is very unfortunate since they include some of the most amazing artifacts ever found in the Southwest.  The loan of this scraper is a significant step away from that, and I congratulate both the AMNH and the NMHM for arranging for its loan and display.  There are a few other items from Chaco on display in the same gallery, but this is by far the most famous.  The museum doesn’t allow photography, so I don’t have a picture of the scraper, but I highly recommend a visit to see it to anyone interested in Chaco.

Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

Pepper’s article includes a bit more information about the scraper.  It was found in the summer of 1897, the second season of work at Pueblo Bonito.  It was actually one of two similar scrapers found next to each other in the western part of Room 38, which is an unusually large rectangular room in the oldest part of the site, known as Old Bonito and made up mostly of small rooms with an early style of masonry, the most famous of which is probably Room 33.  The two scrapers in Room 38 were probably originally similarly decorated with mosaic inlay, but one of them was positioned in such a way that the inlay was pointed downward and had fallen out when it was found.  The other scraper, however, was positioned so that the inlay was facing up, and it was therefore preserved intact.  This is the scraper now on display in the NMHM.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

The inlay consists of a combination of elongated and triangular pieces of turquoise and jet, alternating and arranged in bands in a way that produces a very striking effect.  The mosaic was put into a groove cut into the scraper just below the butt end and apparently attached with piñon gum.  Once all the pieces were in the whole surface was polished to a high sheen, which is very noticeable even today.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

It is unfortunately very difficult to date the artifacts excavated by the Hyde Expedition.  Pepper kept detailed field notes during the excavations, and the work is therefore fairly well documented by the standards of the day, but those standards weren’t very high compared to today’s practices.  There were no absolute dating techniques available at the time, and even the relative dating technique of stratigraphic analysis was still being developed and was not used during the Hyde excavations.  All Pepper had to say about chronology in his article on Room 38 was that there was no evidence of contact with the Spanish.  The NMHM label for the AMNH scraper gives a range of AD 700 to 1130, which is basically the maximum range for Pueblo Bonito as a whole.  Given the very precise dating techniques available to Southwestern archaeologists today, it may be possible to narrow this down a bit, even with the unfortunate lack of context from the early excavations.  I know Steve Plog at the University of Virginia is working on reëvaluating the field notes and other information on these excavations to get more precise information.  The Chaco Archive, which is connected to this effort, has a lot of pictures and documents from the early excavations, and it seems like more stuff is being added to it all the time.

Old Bonito

Dating is particularly difficult for the Old Bonito artifacts, for a number of reasons.  Although the rooms were the earliest to be built at Pueblo Bonito, as suggested by the masonry style and confirmed by tree-ring dates, the artifacts within them probably date to much later, perhaps even to the very end of the occupation of the site.  They are both numerous and exquisite, which suggests that the rooms in Old Bonito may have been reused for storage of fine objects after they were no longer used for their original purpose, which would presumably have been after the expansion of Pueblo Bonito starting around AD 1040.  With objects made of organic materials, such as bone, it would be possible to try radiocarbon dating the artifacts themselves, but to my knowledge no one has attempted this, possibly because they are so fragile and valuable.  Thus, while it may be possible to narrow down the date range for the bone scraper, as of right now the very wide range given by the NMHM is probably the best way to go.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

One of the most distinctive things about Chaco, compared to other prehistoric settlements in the northern Southwest, is its stability and longevity.  While most earlier (and, for that matter, later) villages were apparently only occupied for one or two generations, Chaco was a major center for at least 300 years, and may have been occupied at a lower level of population for another hundred or so years after the end of its regional centrality.  Despite the apparent importance of this fact, however, it has received curiously little explicit attention in the scholarly literature on Chaco.  This is probably because the stability of Chaco is easy to see but very difficult to explain.  Any explanation will necessarily have to exist within a particular interpretation of what Chaco was, and given the enormous amount of dispute over that and the number of competing theories it’s hardly surprising that Chaco specialists have spent most of their time coming up with theories and arguing with each other, which has left little time for using those theories to specifically address the issue of stability.  That is, all theories that have been proposed to explain Chaco contain implicit explanations for its stability, but explications of those theories very rarely address stability explicitly.

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

To some extent the explanation for Chaco’s stability depends on the exact nature of the Chaco system and the role of Chaco itself within it, which is a topic of considerable dispute among archaeologists, but there are also some more general factors that probably played a role in the unusual stability of Chaco.

Mealing Room with Row of Metates, Pueblo del Arroyo

The most important is probably the environment.  The details are still a bit unclear, but it does seem from extensive research on the ancient climate that the rise of Chaco coincided with a period of unusually wet conditions that made farming more productive and reliable than it had been before in the arid Southwest.  This would have made the accumulation of agricultural surplus easier than it had been before, which would in turn have increased the power and prestige of areas that were able to accumulate surpluses.  This still doesn’t explain why Chaco specifically became so large and important for so long, since it’s not in a very productive agricultural area even by southwestern standards, but it may in part have just been a matter of fortuitous circumstance: Chaco happened to be where people were starting to gather, after leaving their earlier settlements elsewhere, when conditions improved and they were able to stay there longer than had been possible in other places before.

Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Another important factor was probably trade.  Chaco isn’t in a very good place to farm, but it is located in a strategic position between the productive agricultural areas further north and the mountainous areas further south, each of which may have produced things the other may have needed.  It’s not clear how much trade there was in things like agricultural products, which are rather difficult to transport over long distances without pack animals, but there was certainly a considerable amount of trade in pottery and valuable goods like turquoise, and Chaco is particularly known for the amount of material found there that originated elsewhere.  Some theories have posited that Chaco was a center for redistribution of goods, but there isn’t much direct evidence for this and it’s hard to determine how much stuff passed through Chaco on the way to somewhere else (because that stuff wouldn’t have left any evidence of ever having been at Chaco).  What is clear, though, is that whether or not substantial amounts of trade goods passed through Chaco, an enormous amount of important material came into Chaco and stayed there.  Turquoise is the best known example, but there were a lot of other things too, including exotic goods like copper bells and macaws brought up from Mexico.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

Whether from agricultural surplus or from trade, then, or possibly from both, Chaco was clearly a very wealthy place at its height, and it was probably that wealth that allowed it to last so long when other settlements had been so transient.  Favorable environmental conditions probably played a role in the ability of Chaco to accrue that wealth, but not necessarily in a straightforward way.  There may also have been other political, cultural, or religious factors that contributed to Chaco’s staying power.  One thing that’s interesting to note is that while Chaco did last a long time, its end seems to have come pretty rapidly.  Large-scale construction seems to have ended abruptly around AD 1130, and while a reduced population does seem to have remained in (or possibly returned to) the canyon until 1250 or so, the bulk of the population seems to have left for other settlements that ended up being occupied for much shorter periods.  That is, Chaco was occupied much longer than earlier settlements, but also much longer than most later settlements.  The fact that environmental conditions seem to have deteriorated as much at the end of the Chacoan era as they had improved at the beginning reinforces the impression that there’s some sort of relationship there.

McElmo-Style South Addition to Pueblo del Arroyo

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newaltolookingnorth

Looking North from New Alto

When I was working at Chaco, we would often get visitors who would complain about how hard it was to get there.  They usually focused on the road in and asked why there wasn’t more effort to pave it and make it more accessible to the American public.  After all, isn’t that what national parks are for?  Well, no, I would often respond.  The Park Service mission is preservation foremost and visitor services secondarily, and most of the time concerns about preservation trump concerns about accessibility and interpretation.  There is one interesting exception at Chaco, but for the most part the park is concerned more with preserving the sites than with showing them to the public.

areaclosedsign

"Area Closed" Sign on Peñasco Blanco Trail

Some people were satisfied with this explanation, but many weren’t.  I didn’t have much to say to those who took a more absolutist position on the right of the public to access the parks.  That’s just a basic philosophical difference, and the best we could do was agree to differ.

farmingtondowntownseeyousoon

Downtown Farmington, New Mexico

One thing I often thought about saying, however, was that it might be better to just build a full-scale model of Pueblo Bonito in downtown Farmington (or even Albuquerque).  For a lot of the visitors who come to Chaco, it’s really just a matter of seeing Pueblo Bonito, marveling at it, and going on their way.  They’re the ones who complain about how hard it is to get there; arguments about how the isolation is part of the point carry no water with them.  I never actually said this, but I do wonder if it might be a good idea.  One of the ways in which the two aspects of the Park Service mission are very much in tension is that preservation and visitation are not only different, they’re actually often in direct conflict.  Visitor impacts are among the most serious threats to the preservation of the sites.  Sometimes people deliberately vandalize the sites, carve their names one the canyon walls, or steal artifacts, but even the vast majority of visitors who don’t do anything deliberately nonetheless destabilize the sites just by being there, walking through them, inadvertently touching the walls, and so forth.  The biggest single thing the park could do to improve preservation of the sites would be to limit public access to them.

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Pueblo Bonito from Above

A full-scale replica of Pueblo Bonito in another location would have a similar effect: drawing the casual visitors away from the canyon and leaving it to the more serious people who are willing to brave the road to get there.  There would be little need to recreate any of the other sites, except perhaps Casa Rinconada; Bonito is what people come to Chaco for.

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Casa Rinconada, Looking North

It won’t happen, of course, but it’s not as crazy an idea as it sounds.  I was reminded of it by Paul Barford’s recent post on an idea proposed by Trevor Watkins for dealing with the recent disputes among governments over some high-profile antiquities.  The proposal is to make replicas indistinguishable from the originals, then trade both the originals and the replicas back and forth between the source countries and the countries that currently have the objects without telling the public if what they see is original or a copy.  This seems like a bizarre thing to do, and I kind of doubt the source countries will be in favor of it (though they might like a version in which they get to keep the originals permanently and the acquiring countries have to make do with copies), but the proposal notes that there are actually some archaeological sites, particularly the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux and Altamira, that have full-scale replicas, and visitors seem to like them just fine and to even say that they are better than the originals because they allow better visibility of the interesting parts, which in the case of the caves are the cave paintings for which they are famous.  This is kind of an extreme version of the reconstruction of prehistoric sites that was popular in the Southwest in the 1930s, moving beyond that only in that the replicas are not adding on to the originals but are separate entirely.  In addition to being more convenient for visitors, this would also be better for preservation of the original sites.  I think American archaeology might actually be moving in this direction too, with the reburial of Baker Village after excavation, with only the protective capping on the walls visible from the service, being an early indication.

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Low Walls at Pueblo Alto

More directly relevant to Watkins’s proposal, perhaps, is the famous jet frog found in Room 38 at Pueblo Bonito by the Hyde Exploring Expedition in 1897.  Often considered one of the most remarkable Anasazi artifacts known, the frog is made of jet with turquoise inlay forming its eyes and neck, and is intact except for a couple of pieces of inlay on the neck.  Like all the rest of the material found by that expedition, the frog was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it remains to this day, not on display but somewhere back in the storage cabinets.

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Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

There is, however, a jet frog prominently displayed in the museum at the Chaco visitor center.  Although it is not labeled as such, this is an exact replica of the original, right down to the missing inlay pieces.  Since the American Museum is notoriously protective of its collections, this is the best the park could do to show what the jet frog looks like.  This is exactly what Watkins is advocating: exact replicas, put on display without any indication that they aren’t original.  Unlike his proposal, of course, in this case the original and the replica don’t move back and forth, but any real-life implementation of the proposal would probably end up that way.

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Museum of Chaco Culture

What all this goes to show, I think, is that most people who come to archaeological sites and museums to see the wonders of the past aren’t all that concerned with the “authenticity” of what they see.  Indeed, for a lot of people an impressive reconstruction is preferable to an unimpressive original.  We would get some people who really wanted all the sites to be rebuilt to their original state.  (No way that’s ever going to happen, for a lot of reasons.)  There are visitors who only want to see the “real stuff,” but it’s important to realize that that isn’t everybody, and it may not even be a majority.  Many people go to see this stuff as entertainment, and they judge it on that basis.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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